Recently, I was giving a talk on plotting. When I came to the topic of subplots, a lively discussion ensued. Some felt any book called a novel had to have a subplot. That was countered by some who felt that you should avoid subplots altogether. A few felt that subplots were there to beef up the word count. And others felt that was exactly why you should avoid subplots: they distract from the main plot.
I called a halt and offered these guidelines for sub-plots
- It is a sub-plot. Therefore, it is sub (subordinate to, under, below, beneath) the main plot. It is second fiddle. So on all levels, it must remain secondary. It must not crowd the main plot for space or attention.
But, it is a plot. Therefore, it needs the elements of a plot. It must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It needs an arc. It cannot coast along at the same level from start to finish. And it is an important part of any plot, sub or main, that someone (or more than one) must change. Keep in mind that person could be the reader. If you can change the attitude or mindset of the reader, that is a change, and much more difficult to achieve than changing a character of the book.
- It must satisfy at least one of these two criteria.
- It must add to the reader’s understanding of the setting, the surroundings, the texture of the story. In my book Cleansed by Fire, the subplot involving a mysterious character close to the drug scene gives the reader a feel for the texture of the town, that is, the drug problem in the small town. Without my preaching about the problem, the Earl subplot makes it clear.
- It must give the reader a clearer understanding of one or more characters in the story, preferably the protagonist. A well crafted subplot can allow the author to define the protagonist without “telling.” It is an excellent vehicle for “showing” the reader the true nature of the protagonist without “telling.” Using the same example above, Earl allowed me to bring out a number of characteristics of the protagonist without “telling.”
So, in the example I have given, a subplot served two important jobs.
But what about the question: subplot or not. Subplots can improve a book. Subplots can help the author with two important areas: help define the texture of the story, and help the reader better understand certain characters – and in a way that works well for the author.
If you can use a subplot to accomplish one or both of the two conditions above, then by all means add a subplot. If the subplot is used to simple bulk up the book, add words, get in something that you the author wants to say that is not necessary to the story, then leave it out.
Rod Granet, award-winning novelist and womanizer, is the main speaker at a writers conference. But after the opening session and in front of a crowd, Maggie DeLuca, Father Frank’s sister, accuses Granet of stealing her story and says he will pay for it.
That night, Granet is killed.
The sheriff quickly zeros in on Maggie and she is hauled off in handcuffs. The sheriff is convinced he has the murderer and threatens Father Frank not to get involved in this case.
But the sheriff is not the only one threatening Father Frank.
Can Father Frank stay out of jail and alive, and find the real killer?
After a successful career in mathematics and computer science, receiving grants from the National Science Foundation and NASA, and being listed in Who’s Who in Computer Science and Two Thousand Notable Americans, James R. Callan turned to his first love—writing. He wrote a monthly column for a national magazine for two years. He has had four non-fiction books published. He now concentrates on his favorite genre, mystery/suspense, with his sixth book releasing in 2014.